On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest. Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!
Trent Clark held the the bat in an atypical manner prior to being drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers last year. Described as “more of a golf grip than a traditional baseball grip” by Baseball America, it nonetheless worked. The 19-year-old outfielder dominated the Texas prep circuit with a lethal left-handed stroke.
The golf grip is no more.
“I dropped my thumbs down,” said Clark. “I’m going with a traditional grip now, because that makes it easier for me to keep my bat in the zone longer, as well as get to inside pitches more efficiently and more consistently. I like how it feels, so I’m going to stay with it.”
Clark, who is spending his first full professional season with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, wasn’t force fed the adjustment.
“We played around with it in instructs, but they never really told me to do it,” explained Clark. “They just kind of loaded my mind with how it would benefit me. It was, ‘We ultimately want you to do what you want to do, but we’re going to tell you what we think. If you want to make the adjustment — if you want to drop them — you can. If you don’t — if you want to hit like that — we’re still behind you.”
Clark heard the suggestion prior to joining the Brewers, but he wasn’t having any of it. You can’t blame him. He batted .555 in his senior year and set a Team USA 18U record with 24 RBIs.
“There are people who want to change your stuff, just to say they helped you along,” opined Clark. “They want to put their name on you. But it’s my career, and my decision. That’s the way I saw it.”
"stressed his Christian faith, his interest in charity, and his success advising other similar clients"
SEC: Adviser scammed millions from pro athletes
Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY7:15 p.m. EDT June 21, 2016
Denver Broncos quarterback Mark Sanchez and other professional athletes were scammed out of millions of dollars by an investment adviser who gained their trust by stressing his Christian faith and claiming to be a certified public accountant, a newly unsealed federal lawsuit charges.
Sanchez, San Francisco Giants pitcher Jake Peavyand Roy Oswalt, a retired pitcher who starred with the Houston Astros and other teams, were among those defrauded in the alleged scheme, according to the civil lawsuit filed in Texas by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The three were clients of investment adviser Ash Narayan, managing partner of the California office of Texas-based RGT Capital Management. A legal brief in the case said Narayan "stressed his Christian faith, his interest in charity, and his success advising other similar clients," along with falsely saying he was a CPA.
"Regrettably, these relationships were built on lies," the filing charged. Narayan allegedly exploited the athletes and other clients," and "funneled their savings into a money-losing business and his own pocket," said Shamoil Shipchandler, director of the SEC's Fort Worth, Texas office.
The SEC lawsuit accused Narayan of fraudulently channeling the money to The Ticket Reserve, a struggling online sports and entertainment ticketing business formed to help fans reserve face-value seats for sports events for which teams had not yet been determined.
Narayan, who was the ticketing business' chief fundraiser, a member of the company's board of directors and owner of more than 3 million of the firm's shares, channeled more than $33 million of clients' money to the business from 2010 to 2016, usually without receiving consent, the lawsuit charges.
The ticketing business needed the cash infusions from Narayan's unsuspecting clients to remain in operation, the lawsuit charged. In a May 26, 2014, email to Narayan, Richard Harmon, CEO of the Ticket Exchange, allegedly wrote: "To be sure our revenue sucks. Our balance sheet is a disaster."
In exchange for the transactions, Narayan received nearly $2 million in hidden compensation from the ticketing business, with most of the money directly traceable to funds stolen from his client, the lawsuit charged.
Harmon and other officials of the ticketing business were charged with knowingly or recklessly taking steps to conceal Narayan's compensation. They alternately characterized the payments as directors' fees or as loans, a designation that enabled the investment adviser to avoid reporting the payments as taxable income, the lawsuit charged.
The Ticket Reserve also made Ponzi scheme-like payments to existing investors using money from new investors, the lawsuit charged. After being fired from his investment firm and losing access to his former clients' accounts, Narayan allegedly began redirecting the sham fees he received back to The Ticket Exchange.
The SEC obtained a May 24 emergency court order freezing the assets of Narayan, Harmon and John Kaptrosky, the ticketing company's chief operating officer. The order similarly froze assets of The Ticket Reserve. Chief U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Lynn in Dallas appointed a receiver to gather, take possession and preserve the company's assets.
Defense lawyer Howard Privette said Narayan worked cooperatively with SEC investigators and was disappointed by the court action. "Mr. Narayan has always sought to act in his clients’ best interests. Accordingly, he will continue to work with the SEC to ensure that this matter is resolved in the most favorable manner for those clients," Privette said in a statement.
Attorney Lanny Davis said neither Harmon nor his Kaptrosky did anything wrong. "They and the company were in fact victims of someone else's alleged wrongdoing," and the businessmen "look forward to continuing to cooperate with the SEC to resolve this matter as soon as possible," said Davis.
Although the athletes told Narayan they wanted to pursue conservative investments, the SEC lawsuit characterized the ticketing business as "very risky and inconsistent."
Oswalt agreed in 2010 to invest no more than $300,000 in the company. However, Narayan directed more than $7 million of the pitcher's money to the business without Oswalt's knowledge or consent, the lawsuit alleged.
Sanchez, who formerly starred with the New York Jets, agreed to invest just $100,000 in the business. But Narayan allegedly channeled more than $7 million of the quarterback's money to The Ticket Reserve.
Peavy never authorized investments in the ticketing business and never knew of its existence until February 2016. A court filing shows it was then when Oswalt phoned and told Peavy that Narayan had been fired amid discoveries of unauthorized client investments.
May 18, 2016 B. David Zarley
ATHLETES CONNECTED: INSIDE THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN'S NEW APPROACH TO MENTAL HEALTH FOR ATHLETES
Adam Kern couldn't sleep.
He was having a difficult freshman year at the University of Michigan, in his hometown of Ann Arbor. There had been the death of a family member, plus the usual oscillation between thrilling freedom and total unmoored terror that's intrinsic to the college experience. And then there were the academic pressures, and the additional onus of being a student-athlete on the Wolverines track and cross country teams. While his twin brother, Nick, seemed to excel, by spring track season Adam was an athlete on the bubble. His struggles were starkly clear to him, and his failings measured empirically on stopwatches and result sheets. The generalized anxiety that he had since childhood—an anxiety that might manifest in music being stuck in his head or a complete freeze after the first page of a test; an anxiety that had led Adam to ask his parents for a therapist in fourth grade—just seemed to make everything worse. There was no let-up.
Every race took on the proportions of life and death; for Adam, being an athlete and being himself seemed one and the same, and as he confronted the possible end of his athletic career, a host of other frightening questions opened in turn. In April 2011, he ran the 5,000-meter race at Michigan State's Spartan Invitational unattached—that is, for himself, not the university.
"To me, it was another chance to prove myself, that I was worthy to have a roster spot," Adam says in the lobby of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
But the burden weighed him down, pressing on a body still battling knee inflammation that had first flared up a month and change prior. What he dreaded, that his lack of strength and fitness would be too much for him to overcome, came screaming at him now with cold certainty. Adam came through his first mile behind schedule and his race deteriorated from there; he fell further and further off the pace he desperately wanted, until he crossed the finish line and practically collapsed. As he cooled down with his brother, tears streamed down his face. He knew he was going to be cut.
And he was.
Officially jettisoned from the team, Kern felt like his very identity had been taken away from him. His insomnia got worse. He took to taking extreme methods to sleep—what, doesn't everyone move their mattress to the floor, use their desk and chair and sheet to build a sensory deprivation tent to block out the noise and the static, just to get some fucking sleep?—but nothing seemed to help. Finally, Kern sought out the therapist he had first gone to as a child.
It took a combination of therapy, SSRIs, and time, but Kern got better. He surmounted the depression, graduated with a bachelor's in psychology, and even started running again; these days, he is training for a triathlon, each step he takes now for himself.
And he began to help others.
Today, Kern is part of a new team: Athletes Connected, the University of Michigan's athlete-focused mental health program. A joint effort of the University's Depression Center, the School of Public Health (SPH), and the Wolverines athletic department, it aims to combat the stigma around mental illness and encourage athletes suffering from mental health disorders to seek help; it aims to do this by helping them understand more about mental health issues, and by making help more readily available.
Athletes Connected began as a pilot program two years ago, with a multi-departmental team that included Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at SPH, Trish Meyer, who was then the manager for outreach and education for the Depression Center, and Barb Hansen, the athletics counselor for the Wolverines.
Research into college students and mental health painted a bleak picture. According to the SPH's in-house magazine, Findings, a third of college students suffered from anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Of these, only 30 percent sought treatment; when just looking at student-athletes, though, that number fell to 10 percent.
Before Athletes Connected, Wolverines had two in-house counselors they could see, in addition to the campus counseling resources and various wellness groups available to the entire student body. The problem, it seemed, was not necessarily the lack of resources but the obstacles discouraging athletes in particular from seeking help. Athletes Connected was formed to correct those dire numbers, funded by a grant secured from the NCAA in the spring of 2014.
The team moved quickly.
"We really began doing the work in earnest, the videos and things, in May and June of 2014," Hansen says. They also held focus groups of athletes to help guide the program.
The videos were instrumental to the pilot. Featuring recent graduates Kally Fayhee, a swimmer, and Will Heininger, a football player, they are exceedingly well produced; Fayhee and Heininger detail their struggles with mental health during their Wolverine careers and their respective roads to recovery over loving shots of the natatorium and Michigan Stadium.
These videos were shown to the coaching staffs at the University in September of 2014, and later that fall to the athletes. Surveys were given out to athletes before and after the screenings on whether the videos were engaging or useful, if the athletes would use the coping techniques and the support groups described in them, and if they would avail themselves of an athletic counselor if they felt they were facing a personal problem.
The immediate results looked promising: Over 90 percent of the athletes found the videos relevant; more than half admitted to mental-health-related performance issues in the previous four weeks. A number indicated that they would seek counseling.
"We saw a huge increase in student-athletes utilizing resources after that first year, with all of those educational presentations that we did," says Emily Brunemann, a graduate research assistant in the School of Social Work, former Michigan swimmer, and current member of Team USA. As the year went on, however, participation dropped back down. Student-athletes, it seemed to Brunemann, had to be continuously reminded about the importance of their mental health. "Sometimes it falls to the wayside when they pick their priorities," she says.
Athletes often put in 30 to 35 hours a week for their sport, on top of all the academic and social commitments they share with their non-sport-playing peers, and students who depend on scholarships to stay in school face a very real pressure to maintain a certain level of performance. Faced with limited time, athletes are more likely to put mental health low on their priority list.
Perhaps most damaging of all, though, is the misunderstanding surrounding mental health issues, which results in a stigma that's acutely felt by athletes—and male athletes especially. "It's that tough-it-out mentality," Brunemann says. "We've heard that constantly from student-athletes. They feel like they have to tough it out, they should be able to fight it, they're strong enough for this and can handle it on their own."
They are not getting this from nowhere. Sports reward toughness, both physical and mental, and the language in which sports gets talked about, from locker rooms on out, hinges on the idea of toughness. Athletes must be able to deal and overcome, to perform, when pressure is high. Their ability to do so, they are told, is what separates them from the general public; the ability to do this seamlessly and perfectly is what separates the transcendent athletes from the merely mediocre or even great. There's truth in these clichés, but also something that is all too easily weaponized. It's an outlook that encourages athletes to put up a facade in order to avoid admitting to weakness.
"There's a worry that they—a big fear, actually—show to a coach that maybe they can't, or a particular day or a particular week they are really struggling, that they could lose their place on the team, their playing time, the coach's perception of them may change," Hansen says. "So it is a big fear. Probably one of the biggest barriers, if not the biggest."
Encouragingly, these fears may be more unfounded than first thought.
"The really interesting thing is ... probably every student-athlete that I've worked with who has eventually decided to make their coaches aware that they're having a particular struggle, they have gotten just the opposite reaction," Hansen says. "Support and care and concern and flexibility—that keeps happening. But that fear is still pretty big out there."
For all their extra pressures, athletes have extra benefits, as well. Teammates and coaching staffs offer built-in support networks; the rhetoric of mental resilience and tough-love "life-lessons" rolled out by coaches may come across as cliché, but sports—competition and teamwork and focus and all the other old verities—really can foster that sort of mental strength. Athletes Connected has set up "wellness groups," which are facilitated by licensed social workers, that play to these strengths, and they provide a welcoming, team-like environment for Wolverines players to talk about mental health.
Athletes Connected is, in the end, about more than just helping Michigan's athletes. Take Will Heininger, the football player featured in one of the videos talking about his depression. Now the program coordinator, he gives talks at local high schools, where the word of a former Wolverines football player carries more weight with some students than any counselor or teacher ever could.
But the biggest impact that Athletes Connected may have beyond the Ann Arbor campus lies in the program's research component, led by Eisenberg and his team at the School of Public Health, which includes research assistant Adam Kern.
"For the first year, that meant thinking about what kind of measures we wanted to use to evaluate the success of the team presentations," the tall, soft-spoken Eisenberg says in his office overlooking Forest Hill cemetery. Next came a study on the effectiveness of videos or articles as a medium for reaching athletes. "We did a randomized trial with the videos, where we invited all the student-athletes to take a brief online survey. And then, of those who participated, we randomized them to watch one of the coping skills videos featuring Will or Kally, or to go to a website with an article on that same topic, the same coping skills."
Eisenberg's team found that the videos—about deep breathing and reframing self-defeating thoughts—seemed more effective than the articles, with respondents saying they were more likely to remember and use the coping methods they watched rather than read about, especially for the simple concept of deep breathing. Results like these, if they hold true in larger, more diverse populations, could be used to craft ever more helpful materials in the ongoing fight against stigma, misinformation, and lack of access to care.
The School of Public Health's newest Athletes Connected research initiative ties in to mental health and performance, a subject with wide-ranging implications. Eisenberg is currently working with a group of 40 to 45 student-athletes to track things like their mood, sleep levels, and other data points related to mental health, as well as their academic and athletic performance. Athletes are particularly well suited to this kind of study, namely because their performance can be, and constantly has been, quantified; race results, batting averages, and personal bests are some of the metrics that Eisenberg will look at.
"We have a unique opportunity to see how mental health relates to performance and functioning in a very measurable, salient way," Eisenberg, whose background is in economics, says. "Which might yield some lessons that are more general, beyond student-athletes."
Much like many of the athletes it helps, Athletes Connected finds its strength in teamwork.
That starts in the athletic departments, where the trainers, who see athletes when they're injured and at their lowest, are often the ones to steer students Hansen's way. That personal, in-house connection is coupled with the University's powerful medical resources and the Depression Center. The Depression Center's advocacy mission is bolstered by the School of Public Health's findings, and the SPH research can be utilized to help improve attitudes toward, and treatments of, mental health.
While the early and anecdotal results of Athletes Connected are positive so far, Eisenberg believes there is still a long way to go. Still, the conversation surrounding the program is a marked improvement over the suffocating silence that has typically surrounded mental health.
"The main evidence of success is ... the amount of enthusiasm we've seen from the student-athletes, the administrators, in the athletic department, really in the rest of the campus community," Eisenberg says. "People all over the country getting in touch with us, saying they are excited about it. There's definitely a high level of interest. At this point, [that's] all we can ask for."
Athletes Connected has something that a runner like Adam Kern can appreciate: a strong start.
NFL Player Falls Victim To Bitcoin Scam
Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden has filed suit after his business manager allegedly scammed him out of $15 million
By Joe Lemire Jun 11, 2016
Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden filed suit against his business manager and financial advisor for allegedly bilking him out of some $15 million including $3 million invested in Bitcoins that carried a “guarantee” that McFadden “would not lose any money,” according to a copy of the civil complaint filed in federal court this week.
The lawsuit, which was first reported by the Associated Press, accused McFadden’s manager—named Michael Vick, although not the famous NFL player of that name—of being “unscrupulous” and “manipulating control of virtually the entirety of Plaintiff’s income and assets through a sweeping and fraudulently-induced power of attorney.” The complaint claimed Vick used McFadden’s income for his own gain and went “so far as to fabricate fictirous transactions, records and spreadsheets” to conceal Vick’s pervasive and widespread theft and management.
McFadden told the Dallas Morning News that Vick was “an old family friend that we knew growing up forever and ended up trusting him to do my finances and it didn’t work out right for me. It’s just one of those deals with me as a young guy I wasn’t on top of my finances like I should have been and I trusted somebody to take care of everything for me and I don’t feel like at the time he had my best interest.”
Vick declined comment to the AP, saying he had not yet seen the lawsuit.
out of their livelihood, as con men flock to their rich salaries. McFadden’s case, however, appears to be the first such instance of an athlete losing money invested in Bitcoin, the virtual currency whose price has fluctuated widely.
For one of the allegedly fraudulent businesses described in the lawsuit is that Vick purportedly was “pressuring Plaintiff to start a venture creating and manufacturing bitcoins, guaranteeing that even if the venture did not generate profits, Defendant would guarantee that Plaintiff would not lose any money.” The suit also claimed that Vick used McFadden’s money to “purchase all the necessary infrastructure and materials, only to retain all the revenues” and “claim sole ownership and dominion.”
The very real problem posed by apparently mischievous business managers preying on star athletes has extended into the nebulous and abstract world of digital currency.
A Ray Of Hope
Louisville star CF Corey Ray, picked No. 5 overall by the Brewers last week, highlights Chicago’s inner-city baseball renaissance.
BY Shane Monaghan
Inlate April of last year, Corey Ray put the baseball world on notice. In the bottom of the ninth inning of a game against Wake Forest University, Ray, an outfielder for the University of Louisville, stood on third base. The game was tied, and he had a winning play in mind. Wake Forest’s pitcher, Will Craig, had just hit a batter to load the bases with two outs. Ray noticed that Craig had not looked over at him, and that Craig’s windup was slow and deliberate.
Ray turned to third base coach Eric Snider. “I’ve got this,” he said.
“If you think you can do it, go ahead,” said Snider.
They were two of the three people in Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium that day who knew what Ray was about to do. Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell later recalled, “When he looked across at me, I could see it in his eyes.”
As Craig stepped to the rubber, Ray crept off third base, squared himself toward the pitcher’s mound, and settled his 6-foot, 190-pound frame into a lead. When Craig began his windup, Ray took off. Before the pitcher had pushed off to throw home, Ray was already halfway there. He dove across the plate for the winning run split seconds after the pitch crashed into the dirt and rolled away from the catcher.
During the following days, news outlets from New York to Los Angeles shared the video of Ray doing the unthinkable, stealing home for a walk-off win. ESPN’s SportsCenter gave it No. 7 on its top plays of the day.
“It is still kind of unbelievable,” Louisville pitcher Kyle Funkhouser said nearly a year later. “You can get away with that type of thing against a bad team in Little League, but to get away with it in a Division-I ACC baseball game is unreal.”
Ray’s remarkable steal was just part of a breakout sophomore season. He finished the year as a second-team All-American, and first-team all-ACC, as MLB scouts took notice that he was one of the best position players in college baseball. But Ray’s journey started in a place that made all his accomplishments improbable.
The Milwaukee Brewers selected Corey Ray fifth overall in last week’s draft, making him the first player from Chicago since 1989 taken in the top 10. Ray’s success and draft position is not just rare for Chicago; it is increasingly atypical for Major League Baseball overall.
Before 1990, prospects from northern cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Chicago often were selected in the early rounds of the draft. Recently, however, the only major cities to produce top-tier talent consistently have been weather-friendly Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and San Diego.
Ray also is a black male in an overwhelmingly white and Hispanic sport. According to a report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports just over eight percent of the players on opening day Major League rosters were black, much less than half as much as 1981, when baseball had its highest percentage of black players, at almost 19 percent. Another report by the same institute noted that only 2.8 percent of Division I college baseball players are black, down from the already slim 6.5 percent from just a decade ago.
While Major League Baseball has taken steps to address that bemoaned eight-percent number, Tony Reagins, who is tasked with revamping Major League Baseball’s youth programs, points to several factors for the decline of young African-Americans playing the game: the lack of financial resources in underserved areas, the limited number of scholarships for college baseball (in comparison to football and basketball), and the MLB’s decision to invest more money in the development of baseball internationally than domestically.
Ray is not just a gifted athlete who had an anomalous breakout, though. His development owes a lot to institutions, both new and old, aimed at the development of baseball players on the Chicago’s South Side. He was part of one of the first groups to go through the White Sox’s Amateur City Elite (ACE) program, an innovative operation that provides facilities and top coaching for inner-city youths, free of charge. The program also pays for expenses involved with competitive travel baseball, which gives players exposure to top colleges, scouts and the best talent in the nation. No other MLB team has such a program.
Ray also attended Simeon Career Academy, a South Side high school that in a previous era churned out MLB draft picks. In recent years, the school has been more well known as a source of superior basketball talent — producing NBA players such as Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker — but at every step of his journey, Corey has been counseled by this previous generation of potential MLB talent from Simeon, a group of players that never managed to fulfill the promise they showed.
Ray is part of a resurgence of baseball on the South Side. Because of his success — and the success of several others his age — major colleges and big-league teams are beginning to look at Chicago baseball again.
“Schools are coming back asking me who the next Corey Ray is going to be,” said White Sox director of youth initiatives Kevin Coe.
Chicago’s Princeton Park neighborhood is set up as a large circle, and at the center is the basketball court at Turner Drew Language Academy. Growing up, Ray would come home from school or baseball practice and go straight to that basketball court where everyone from Princeton Park, Lowden Homes and other surrounding neighborhoods congregated for pickup games. There were no streetlights at night, but the games sometimes continued under car headlights. The world around Corey was interested only in basketball. The only baseball played was catch and small games with Ray, his father and one of his original teammates, Darius Day.
From an early age, Ray lived in Princeton Park with his father, Corey Ray, Sr., his two older sisters, and his stepmom. The neighborhood, 12 miles south of downtown Chicago, is over 97 percent black, with a median income of $34,255 (city-wide median income is $61,598), according to data from the U.S. Census. Two of his aunts lived just down the street, and his grandparents also were close by. His mother, while not living with Corey, also remained in touch.
Ray, Sr., who for nearly 20 years has driven snowplows and street sweepers for the City of Chicago, introduced his son to sports early. When the boy was only a few years old, his father bought him a small plastic basketball hoop and a whiffle ball set. Little Corey, described as energetic and sneaky by his father, gravitated to the bat and ball. Baseball fascinated him from the beginning.
Ray began organized baseball at the age of four. A co-worker of Ray, Sr. planned to start a peewee team and knew the younger Ray would be a good addition. As a short lefty, he was not fit to play first base or any other infield positions, but his speed was ideal for centerfield. Fly balls did not often come his way in Little League, but the position stuck. The outfield remained Corey Ray’s domain from then on out. He did not play any other organized sports, save for a season of basketball in eighth grade. The baseball field felt like a different world to him.
“The feeling you get when you hit a pitch, you throw someone out or you steal a base,” said Ray. “I didn’t get that feeling anywhere else.”
The 1980s and early 1990s rank as the golden age of baseball at Simeon. Under the guidance of Leroy Franklin, the program became a perennial contender for Chicago’s Public League championship, and often advanced deep into the state playoffs. But even more impressive was the number of draft picks the school produced. From 1982 to 1993, 16 Simeon players were selected in the MLB draft. The headliners included Wes Chamberlain, drafted in the fifth round of the 1984 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates; Jeff Jackson, drafted No. 4 overall by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1989; and Shawn Livsey, drafted in the first round of the 1991 draft by the Houston Astros.
“I just thought that was how it always was,” says Coe, a 1993 Simeon graduate, who was drafted in the 63rd round by the San Diego Padres. Instead, “that was an anomaly.”
Of those 16 players drafted, only five decided to forego professional ball and attend college, and Chamberlain, who attended Jackson State University, was the only one who went a Division I school. The others attended junior colleges, and four of them, including Coe, were then drafted higher in ensuing years.
Chamberlain was the only Simeon player to make a Major League roster. “None of those guys were prepared mentally for minor league ball,” said Robert Fletcher, who graduated from Simeon in 1992 and worked as an assistant coach at the school, on and off, from 1997 to 2013. Fletcher said players from Chicago existed in an insulated environment. They did not get the chance to play other top talent on a regular basis, which made the transition to professional baseball difficult. “Guys go down to the minors and seeing someone throw 90 [mph] every day was kind of a shock,” he said.
As Chicago players faltered in the minor leagues, MLB teams shifted their attention away from the city. “A lot of guys got drafted and didn’t fare so well,” said Fletcher. “They [MLB teams] kind of stayed away from the city.” There were rare stars, including Anthony Brewer, a fourth-round draft pick by the Marlins in 2000, but Chicago and Simeon were no longer seen as consistent sources of top-tier baseball talent.
Nathan Durst, a scout for the White Sox, said the largest factor in the decline was money. Kids around the country began to focus on one sport from an earlier age, which gave way to year-round travel baseball. Year-round development required more resources, time and money. “When the idea of travel baseball started, it priced out kids from the inner city,” said Fletcher. Even the basic factor of weather was not in Chicago’s favor. “Would you rather be in a nice heated gym, or outside by the lake while the wind is howling?” Durst asks.
As teams invested more to sign and develop players, they became more discerning about whom to sign. “The financials have changed, and that has changed the dynamic of the type of player both physically and mentally MLB teams are willing to invest money in,” said Durst. It caused teams to seek out more polished and refined prospects, who played baseball all year and had exposure to the best talent.
Reagins, who was the general manager for the Los Angeles Angels until 2011, also noted the lack of college scholarships available for baseball. The scholarship limit for Division I baseball programs is equivalent to 11.7 full rides. For basketball the limit is 13, and for football the limit is 63. Reagins said basketball and football scholarships are usually full rides, while baseball scholarships often need to be divided amongst multiple players. He said the scholarship availability is a significant factor in the appeal of football and basketball for kids in underserved communities. It is widely held that the pace and action involved with football and basketball makes the two sports more attractive than baseball, as well.
“There is definitely talent in the North,” said Reagins. “But the opportunity to play is greater in the South. Whether it is Florida, Texas, Atlanta or California, the warmer climate lends itself to more games being played. The more you play the better you get.” Top-tier MLB talent has come from the suburbs of northern cities, where the baseball programs tend to be better funded. Reagins cited Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout (Vineland, New Jersey) as an example, and the Chicago suburbs have produced players such as New York Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson (Blue Island, Illinois). But there has not been the same success in the heart of America’s inner cities.
By 2006, Durst, who had been working for the White Sox since the mid-1990s, decided his employer could help the South Side of Chicago once again produce first-rate baseball talent. Durst played at the University of Wisconsin and coached at the junior college level before becoming a scout, and he had come to know a group of former minor leaguers from Chicago.
“He had such a comprehensive understanding of the untapped talent,” said Christine O’Reilly, executive director of White Sox Charities.
Durst wanted to take some of the best athletes from Chicago’s South Side and give them the facilities, resources, and exposure to play with the best prospects in the nation. “As far as developing those players skill sets and getting them exposure; there really wasn’t anything,” said Durst. “We always had good athletes in Chicago, but in baseball, athleticism can only take you so far. You need to have some refinement, some development with your skill set.”
Durst worked with Justin Stone, who was affiliated with an indoor sports facility in Lisle, Illinois, that was run by the Chicago Bulls and White Sox, to conceive a program for the White Sox, Amateur City Elite (ACE). The two pitched the idea to O’Reilly and Scott Reifert, the White Sox senior vice president of communications.
“It was brilliant in that there was talent out there,” said O’Reilly. “These kids deserved to be seen and showcased.” Durst also wanted the program to focus on getting players scholarships to the best college baseball programs in the country. Success in the MLB draft would be a secondary goal.
Major League Baseball already had taken notice of the decline of black players. In 1989 the league founded Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a nationwide summer program meant to introduce more minorities to the sport. RBI is active in over 200 cities, including Chicago, and annually provides more than 260,000 boys and girls the chance to play baseball and softball. But Durst wanted the White Sox program to be more targeted and designed for elite talent.
“RBI was always more of a larger program for the masses,” said Durst.
In 2007 the White Sox formed a team with the best freshman baseball players (and one eighth grader) in the city. Durst said the team had success, but those involved realized more time would be needed to develop top prospects.
“There wasn’t going to be enough time in that four year span to get them playing up to the ability to be recruited by a power-five conference,” said Durst.
Durst reached out to Robert Fletcher, who the previous two years had coached the Upper Deck Cougars, a team of the best 12-year-olds from the Jackie Robinson West Little League (the league was stripped of the 2014 Little League World Series title for knowingly violating league residency rules.) Fletcher had formed the team after his son and his son’s friends showed considerable interest in baseball. The White Sox decided to make Fletcher’s entire team the first ever 13-and-under ACE team. The team’s leadoff hitter was a speedy left-handed outfielder by the name of Corey Ray.
“We went everywhere, and everyone paid attention to us cause we had White Sox on our chest,” recalls Ray. “The reps that I was able to get just being with the White Sox, the facilities that they had open to us definitely were a help. I was able to play the best talent in the country.”
When the program started the players would travel to the Bulls/White Sox facility for year-round weekend practices. As the program grew, the White Sox invested nearly $1 million in a state-of-the-art baseball field at the Ray and Joan Kroc Community center in West Pullman for the South Side of Chicago. The field serves as ACE’s de facto home field. The White Sox also paid for practice time at indoor facilities in and around the city. Ray and his friends frequented a gym in the south suburb of Lynwood that was closer to their homes. It was open to them at almost any hour.
“I remember Saturdays and some Sundays, we would wake up and not have anything to do, and go hit,” said Ray.
“That group was the equivalent of gym rats in basketball,” says Durst. “They were baseball rats. For fun, they would go hit in the cage. They were just baseball, baseball, baseball all the way. It showed with how they developed.”
The ACE program currently serves 120 to 140 kids from the South Side. Depending on the year there are nine to 10 teams. The program has tryouts once a year in late July, and Coe said well over 100 kids usually try out for 15 to 20 spots on the program’s 12-and-under team.
“The true essence of the program is making sure we serve the kids who don’t have the family support and financial wherewithal to do it on their own,” said O’Reilly.
Those who make the grade are with the program through high school, playing and practicing with ACE travel teams year round. White Sox players often mentor the participants. Ray said Juan Pierre was particularly active during his time with the Sox. The coaching staff draws from former minor league and college players from the Chicago area, including Coe and Fletcher, and other longtime Chicago area coaches. Recently the ACE staff added a strength and conditioning coach and an education consultant to help players with schoolwork and college preparation.
Coe estimates the program costs nearly $350,000 annually, which means roughly $2,500 is spent on each player per year. The funding is all provided by the White Sox charities. “They provide everything necessary for the kids to be successful,” said Coe.
Corey Ray has an irrepressible smile, big and contagious. He flashes it often in conversation. He slips seamlessly between his good-natured grin and the intensity he displays on the baseball field. When on the field, his focus is deep. He approaches the batter’s box at a slow pace, and he stops to write “trust” at the outer edge before every at bat. It reminds him to trust his preparation and ability. When he makes contact or moves to steal a base, the uncommon fast-twitch muscles in his tree trunk-sized legs kick in. He pumps his strong arms at a remarkable rate. He can run, throw, field, hit with finesse, and now hits for power, a skill that was slow-developing.
“He was a kid that could barely hit the ball to the outfield grass,” recalls Kevin Coe, who coached Ray for the first time during his eighth grade year. Before Ray started high school, he asked Coe to give him private hitting lessons. “He had a bad recoil on his swing,” said Coe. “He would recoil faster than he would swing the bat through the strike zone. We had to correct that and did a bunch of drills to get his hands and forearms stronger.”
The White Sox and Coe helped Ray’s game, but he had to make the all-important decision of where to attend high school. “I wanted to go somewhere where everyone looked like me,” said Ray about his desire to attend a predominantly black school. He ultimately chose Simeon because he was comfortable with coach Franklin, and many of his ACE teammates planned to attend, as well.
Ray had a significant growth spurt between the end of his eighth-grade year and the start of baseball season his freshman year. He played on varsity as a freshman, and his new-found strength caught everyone’s attention. “All of sudden, his first high school game he hit a ball that had to have gone over 400 feet,” said Coe.
During high school Ray played with Simeon, ACE, and also traveled to the Hitters Baseball Academy in Caledonia, Wisconsin, a premier training facility associated with ACE. He often spent long nights in the batting cages at the indoor facility in Lynwood. He and his teammates started to catch the attention of the best colleges in the country.
The Simeon baseball team also began to attract flocks of fans. The roster Ray’s sophomore year included ACE veterans Blake Hickman, Ronell Coleman, Marshawn Taylor and Darius Day, all of whom were drafted out of Simeon. Ray and his teammates claimed they were the best team in the history of Chicago Public League baseball. Franklin reminded them of Simeon’s actual golden age, though. “He would say, ‘You are not even close,’” recalls Ray. “He would bring up the Jeff Jacksons and the Wes Chamberlains. He would talk about those guys, and that drove us to be better.”
Ray continued his power-hitting streak and people took notice. “Every time I came up to bat everyone would run out to the left field line and [video] record my at bat,” said Ray. “I used to play for the people in the stands.” Ray, Sr. tried to keep the younger Ray focused on what was happening on the field, and came up with the nickname ‘Showtime’ to ease any pressure he felt. “I would say ignore all that, act like ‘Showtime,’” said the elder Ray.
During his sophomore year, LSU, Miami and Louisville — the type of high-profile colleges Nathan Durst always imagined ACE players would attend — recruited Ray. After a visit to Louisville, Ray’s mind was made up. His family could easily make the five-hour drive to see games, and recruiting director Chris Lemonis sold Ray on the chance to showcase his speed in Dan McDonnell’s aggressive, steal-heavy offense. Ray committed at the beginning of his junior year.
Simeon, powered by the core contingent of ACE players, won the Public League championship in Ray’s junior and senior years. The team fell short of a State championship his senior year, but All-American accolades and invites to top showcases piled up. Ray, Ronell Coleman, and Marshawn Taylor all were selected during the 2013 MLB draft. Ray was the highest selection, going to the Seattle Mariners in the 33rd round. He had already committed to Louisville, but the chance to play professional baseball suddenly tempted Ray.
Minor league players earn, on average, between $3,000 and $7,500 for a five-month season, not including performance bonuses and meal stipends for away games, according to Sports Illustrated. Those figures were enough to excite Ray. “You could give me a Snickers and a plane ticket to Seattle, and I am gone,” said Ray. But those around Ray, especially his father, felt a Louisville education was the better route. Ray, Sr. said the younger Ray needed to continue to grow as a player, and if all did not go as planned with baseball, a Louisville degree would give him something to fall back on. The younger Ray just wanted the chance to call himself a professional athlete.
“I was a senior so I already had senioritis,” said Ray. “I wasn’t worried about an education. Everybody who gets drafted thinks they are going to the big leagues, so I never thought I needed an education.”
After many fights and discussions, the father won the debate. The money did not trump the opportunities for growth.
Ray thought he would immediately start in center field for the University of Louisville. “I get on the field and I see who we have and what we can do and what this program is all about and I had to put my tongue in my mouth,” said Ray. He had to learn to be a more disciplined player, and how to keep up with the strenuous schedule of a Division I baseball player. Ray bided his time behind star outfielders Cole Sturgeon and Jeff Gardner.
A late-inning pinch hit against Morehead State turned Ray’s freshman season around. He hit his first collegiate home run, but as he rounded first base while admiring the distance of his two-run jack, he tumbled face first into the dirt. The next day, Chris Lemonis, told the team managers to tape out a crime scene where Ray had fallen. Mention of the incident today makes Ray laugh. “It allowed me to relax a little bit,” he said. “It gave me the confidence that I could play at this level.” Star Louisville pitcher Zach Burdi said Ray had been pressing up to that point in the season, and the entire incident helped to lighten Ray’s mood. “Since then he has been lights out as a hitter,” said Burdi.
Ray moved into the starting lineup in the final week of the regular season, and helped lead Louisville to the College World Series. “Those last 20 to 25 games, he hopped in the lineup and looked like a veteran,” said Lemonis. “When you get kids with as many accolades as Corey had coming in, you sometimes get a lot of ego, but Corey had no ego. He wanted to get better.”
In the first game of the College World Series, Louisville played Vanderbilt University, which meant Ray lined up across from a familiar face — his longtime friend and former ACE teammate Ronell Coleman. Coe decided to take a group of young ACE participants to watch Ray and Coleman at the pinnacle of college baseball. “It was a transcendent moment for our community,” said Coe. “Those kids have transformed baseball in Chicago. We have kids going to schools all over the country because of those kids.”
Coe says the ACE program has helped over 100 kids sign to play college baseball since 2008. Fifteen kids from the program’s 2016 class signed this past fall.
Meanwhile, Ray continued his ascent to the top of college baseball. He hit .310 with 15 home runs, 60 runs batted in and 44 stolen bases as the Cardinals made it to the NCAA Super Regionals before falling to UC Santa Barbara. “It is one of the more amazing stories I have ever seen,” said Lemonis, now the head coach at Indiana University. “I don’t think I have ever seen a kid grow as much in his game as Corey Ray did. He has done it every year.”
Ray’s next challenge is to make a Major League roster.
“I can see myself being like a Jacoby Ellsbury,” said Ray. “Everything he does on the field, I think I bring those same attributes.”
The intensity Ray has approached the game with since he roamed the outfield of Jackie Robinson West Little League makes many believe the completion of such a goal is inevitable.
“His physical ability stands out. He has the makings of an everyday outfielder,” said Durst. “Whatever Corey has struggled with, he has always come back stronger the next year. He has always made the adjustment and come back a better player.”